Dryer fire caused $500,000 damage

By Ruth Longoria

Mercer island Reporter

An overheated clothes dryer is being blamed for a house fire Thursday night that caused about $500,000 damage to a house at 4107 86th Ave. S.E. No residents or firefighters were injured in the fire, but the family's goldfish died and their elderly cat is being treated by a local veterinarian for smoke inhalation-related injuries.

Flames were shooting from the garage area of the home at 8:54 p.m. Thursday when Mercer Island and Bellevue fire crews responded to a 9-1-1 call from the residence.

Thursday's fire was the second housefire in two days. A fire in the 9600 block of S.E. 61st Street caused an estimated $10,000 damage. The cause of the fire was accidental from a torch being used in a roof repair project. No one was injured in the fire.

The homeowner in Thursday's fire, Vicki Rackner, a physician who writes a health column for the Reporter, was home alone when the fire started at about 8:50 p.m. She was in the kitchen cooking pasta and a fillet of salmon. When she smelled smoke, Rackner at first worried that her dinner was burning, she told firefighters. But, after checking the salmon, she realized the smoke was coming from the direction of the garage.

Rackner called for aid and used a fire extinguisher to put out the flames that were coming from behind the dryer. Though she was able to extinguish what appeared to be the fire, the heat and flames had moved beyond and behind the dryer and the fire was out of control when fire crews arrived, said Mercer Island Fire Investigator Rob Villalobos.

``The fire wasn't out, she just knocked out the visible signs,'' Villalobos said.

A white Subaru Forrester parked in the garage was destroyed by the fire. Villalobos said Rackner asked him, after the fire, if she should have attempted to get her car out of the garage.

``I said, `No, you had to get out of there.' Garage doors have a way of closing from the heat. She could have been stranded in there. When there's a fire you have to get out of there. Don't go back for anything. That's how people die.''

Rackner did re-enter the burning home to rescue her Labrador dog, who was sitting on the couch, Villalobos said. Although a few other cats escaped without injury, one was found hiding in a closet when firefighters entered the structure. After firefighters gave the cat oxygen, Fire Commander Walt Mauldin drove Rackner and the cat to a veterinarian, where the cat is being treated for smoke inhalation.

Investigators determined the cause of the fire through a systematic approach, or process of elimination. They examined electrical and other possible initiators and worked from the outside of the house in. The search ended at the dryer.

On Friday morning, yellow law enforcement tape cordoned off the remains of Rackner's personal possessions. Exposed, charred 2x4s peek through several large holes in the roof -- holes that were chopped through by firefighters in their attempt to fight the blaze. A broken, blackened yellow teapot lay in the driveway along with piles of assorted burned clothing and household items. Although firefighters extinguished the fire before it could burn the house to the ground, smoke and water destroyed all of Rackner's possessions, she said.

``We lost everything. But, I'm healthy. My son's healthy,'' Rackner said.

As an insurance adjuster walked through the house and yard, taking pictures, Rackner listened as Villalobos lifted the skeletal remains of the offending dryer and described how the heater coils in the dryer had heated up, like a toaster.

``The fire didn't start with lint from the lint trap.'' he said, showing her where lint builds up in other areas of the appliance.

Dryer fires are fairly common, he said. In fact, this is the second-dryer fire on the Island this year.

A fire in the laundry room at Covenant Shores health care facility April 30 resulted in no injuries, but enough smoke to cause staff and firefighters to evacuate the building. Damage there was estimated at $2,000.

In both cases, the damage could have been far worse, Villalobos said.

Rackner said she hopes some good will come out of her tragedy.

``I just hope that other people can learn from this,'' she said.

Although she regularly cleaned the lint trap on the dryer, which was in the home when she purchased it five years ago, Villalobos told her that people need to be aware that lint builds up throughout the appliance.

``Pull the dryer out from the wall, take the back off and clean the inside, vacuum it. Clean all around the floor, get that lint out,'' Villalobos said.

If you have an old appliance that's getting too hot, don't use it anymore, have it serviced by a professional.

``And, don't think you got a bargain on a $100 used dryer,'' he said. ``An overheated appliance that hasn't been properly maintained can cause a lot of damage.''

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